The nature of climate change impacts is highly localized. In order to be successful, adaptation or mitigation interventions need to be tailored to fit the geographic region, community demographics, and resources available. This is why local governments are especially important and well-positioned to take action.

During the past two years, the United States has seen landmark shifts in its efforts to combat climate change. In 2015, both the U.S. Department of Defense and the Council on Foreign Relations declared climate change a threat to national security.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) now will only grant disaster preparedness funds for states whose hazard mitigation plans address climate change. (To find out if your state has taken this step, visit

And, in 2016, the Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded $48 million to the first American climate refugees: Members of a tribal community in Louisiana need to relocate from the Isle de Jean Charles, which has experienced a 98 percent loss of land since 1955.1

The Isle de Jean Charles residents won’t be alone for long; nearly 5 million people in the U.S. live within four feet of the local high-tide level in their communities.2 The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ( reports that more than 2 billion people around the world live within 60 miles of a coastal boundary. In the coming years, climate projections show that sea-level rise and land subsidence combined with storm surges at high tide will increase flooding in many of these regions.

Yet, coastal communities are not the only ones at risk. Rising temperatures, changes in seasonal variation, and increases in extreme weather events will impact communities all over the world.

The United Nations Development Programme estimates that more than 70 percent of climate change reduction measures and up to 90 percent of climate change adaptation measures are undertaken by local governments.

According to the Local Government Sustainability Practices survey conducted by ICMA in 2015, less than a third (32 percent) of local governments in the U.S. have adopted a sustainability plan even though almost half (47 percent) identified environmental protection as an overall community priority, and only 19 percent have dedicated budget resources specifically to sustainability or environmental protection.

Why is this? According to the same survey, lack of staff capacity and support (59 percent), lack of information on how to proceed (51 percent), and lack of community and resident support (49 percent) are among the most significant factors hindering local sustainability efforts.

Addressing the Challenge

Here are steps that local governments can take to address climate change challenges:


Identify key vulnerabilities. The first step in designing effective adaptation and mitigation strategies is to identify the likely impacts on the community and how the changing climate will affect a local government's ability to deliver services. A variety of tools are available for completing a climate risk assessment (see

Women, children, seniors, disabled, and impoverished residents are all more vulnerable to such climate change impacts as urban heat island effect and increased instances of flooding and drought. Climate change also will impact storm and wastewater management, delivery of clean drinking water, waste and chemical management, and air quality.


Make data available. Access to and dissemination of climate data is critical to a local government’s ability to make informed decisions and identify key vulnerabilities. Coordinating data and projections beyond single teams and areas of service delivery allows for consistent and comprehensive planning across multiple sectors.

Unfortunately, information sharing between departments, agencies, and local research institutions is often overly bureaucratic or nonexistent. Finding ways to liaise between or partner with these entities will help you direct resources toward analyzing existing data and filling gaps rather than duplicating work. Data transparency is important for both local governments and the residents they serve.


Lead by example. Just because data is available, it doesn’t mean local government staff members understand or know what to do with it. In 2015, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, piloted a citywide staff climate training for all full-time employees. The mandatory two-and-a-half-hour training focused on climate science and impacts, along with the city's sustainability projects (

The city held 32 sessions, including evening options, with 85 employees per class for two months. Sixty-nine percent of attendees felt they could use the information learned during their everyday activities at work. Fort Lauderdale also trained the assistant city manager and the department heads to serve as climate ambassadors for the community.


Engage your community. Residents who are aware of and understand climate change vulnerabilities are less likely to be impacted by them and are more likely to support local projects that address them. Townsville, Australia, for example, has been implementing a collective social learning exercise in a workshop format to engage and educate the community for the past decade.

The workshop helps stakeholders create realistic outcomes and solutions to public challenges through an interactive visioning process. When complex information is shared in ways that make sense to local decisionmakers, it allows them to develop actionable, affordable, and equitable strategies.


Look for knowledge exchange opportunities. You are not alone. There are local governments all over the world in varying stages of climate preparedness with which you can trade lessons learned. In South Africa, for example, eThekwini Municipality established the Central KZN Climate Change Compact3 as a way for regional municipalities to pool resources and capacity to address climate change.

Compact members have different levels of institutional capacity and access to resources but have been able to leverage the compact to combat institutional inertia and garner political support. The compact is modeled on the Southeast Florida Regional Compact4 that eThekwini Municipality was exposed to during an ICMA CityLinks™ partnership.

These compacts are a form of regional climate governance that commit local governments to working together on mitigation and adaptation activities.


Explore "no regrets" strategies. Invest in projects that generate social and economic benefits independently of increasing your community's resilience to climate change. Boulder, Colorado, as one example, was able to provide green space and recreation for its residents while keeping critical infrastructure out of low-lying areas through its Greenways Program.

The city program sought to buy vulnerable land in flood plains for environmental protection, habitat restoration, flood mitigation, and increased storm water drainage capacity.


Track your progress. Climate change adaptation or mitigation projects need to be goal-directed, evidence-based, and cost-effective. Using performance management, data analysis, and project management tools to identify opportunities for improvement, and tracking the implementation of those plans is crucial to the short- and long-term success of climate change preparedness goals.

To support its greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets, Somerville, Massachusetts, uses MassEnergyInsight, a free, Web-based tool that can help local governments understand their energy use and reduce their carbon footprint. It delivers customized, easy-to-use reports on electricity, natural gas, and oil use.

Confronting Climate Change

Climate change is a global problem, yet many future solutions will be found at the local level. Local governments that work across community sectors and boundaries, as well as with each other, will be the leaders the world needs.


Endnotes and Resources:


2 National Climate Assessment Report,

3 Central KZN Climate Change Compact,

4 Southeast Florida Regional Compact,





Adaptation: The process of adjusting to actual or expected type of weather and its effects in order to moderate harm or exploit beneficial opportunities. Adaptation activities build resilience to the unavoidable impacts of climate change.


Mitigation: Actions to reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere, to recapture greenhouse gasses currently in the atmosphere, and then to sequester them in ecosystems.


Urban Heat Island Effect: A phenomenon where the concentration of structures and waste heat from human activity causes the temperature in urban regions to be higher than their rural surroundings.




Local governments used as examples in this article were all participants in ICMA’s CityLinks Climate Adaptation Partnership Program, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The CityLinks model was designed by ICMA as a way to enable local government officials in developing and decentralizing countries to draw on the resources of their international counterparts to find sustainable solutions tailored to the real needs of their cities.

It is based on the premise that well-managed communities are the key to efficient service delivery, economic growth, sound management of resources, and political stability.




Here is what representatives of the ICMA CityLinks cities had to say when asked: How do you begin to face climate change?

"So much of what people think about climate change is wrapped up in the 2030, 2050, or 2070 horizon and how warm is it going to be then, along with other factors that are even harder to discern, like how wet or dry it might be.

"Local government managers need to look at climate change through the lens of what they need to do long term, but they also need to be thinking of what does this practically mean for what we need to do in the next year, in the next five years.

"I think there are a wealth of examples from the past that we could choose from, where we maybe weren't as prepared as we could have been, and we know that climate change is going to exacerbate those issues.

"So [consider] what planning strategies we can employ that really set us up for success in that five- to seven-year horizon that we can achieve and then set another five- to seven-year horizon. Then, by the time we're at these future dates, we're hopefully much closer to the track we need to be on."

--Russell Sands, Watershed Sustainability and Outreach Supervisor, Boulder, Colorado


"If you can find a city that you can communicate with—whether it's by Skype or e-mail, establish a link with that city. Learn about other projects it has already done, like creating a climate action plan, and it will provide a good base for you to move forward."

--Kerry Chambers, Chief Administrative Manager, Portmore Municipal Council, Jamaica


"Understand what the nature of impacts are over a period of time. Some cities view climate change as a big thing, just an immense thing they’re grappling with, but you can't build bridges with people by constantly telling them a doomsday scenario.

"Be strategic with what actions you can do over a period of time. Make sure that you can break down problems into a short-, medium-, and long-term approach. Constantly evaluate your actions in dealing with those problems as they are grouped in how they are improving and keeping you on track."

--Pradesh Ramiah, Climate Change Planner, Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia


"Don't go looking for models of a city that has solved climate change or adaptation. I think one of the most interesting things about this partnership is that none of us can actually claim to be the experts.

"What we're doing is sharing challenges and maybe there's some things along the way that we're hopeful for or some small things that can be replicated. There isn't one city that is fully adapted or has even come close.

"Look for things that are useful and replicable, but recognize that there is unpredictability and that’s what resiliency is all about."

--Oliver Sellers-Gracia, Director of Sustainability and Environment, Somerville, Massachusetts

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